By Zeeshan Haider
ISLAMABAD, June 16 (Reuters) – The Pakistani military said on Tuesday it had unconfirmed reports that a weekend bombing raid in the South Waziristan tribal region wounded Tahir Yuldeshev, a senior Uzbek militant linked to al Qaeda.
â€œThere are reports, but not confirmed, that he was wounded in the strike,â€ Pakistani military spokesman Major-General Athar Abbas told a news conference on Tuesday.
Pakistani warplanes had targeted compounds on Saturday in Makeen, a village in the mountains where Pakistani Taliban leader and al Qaeda ally Baitullah Mehsud holds sway. The military has been softening Mehsudâ€™s defences before launching an all out offensive on his stronghold in the remote region, as part of a broader campaign to push back a Taliban tide rolling in from the northwestern borders with Afghanistan.
U.S. officials have welcomed Pakistanâ€™s decision to go after Mehsud in Waziristan, a hotbed of Taliban and al Qaeda activity on the border with Afghanistan.
Major-General Abbas said the â€œpreparatory phaseâ€ of the offensive had begun, but added that it was premature to disclose tactical details.
The army launched a drive against Taliban factions in Swat valley and surrounding areas northwest of Islamabad in late April, and more than 1,300 militants have been killed in that theatre of operations alone.
In the past 24 hours, the military killed 13 militants in Lower Dir and Swat, and lost one soldier, Abbas said.
Together with missile attacks by U.S. drone aircraft, the Pakistani military actions have piled pressure on al Qaeda and the Taliban in areas of northwest Pakistan that they had hitherto regarded as sanctuaries.
Hitting and possibly killing Yuldeshev would mark a major success.
Yuldeshev was a leader in the Islamist militant underground opposed to the communist government in Uzbekistan before and after the break-up of the Soviet Union.
The veteran central Asian jihadi took refuge in Pakistan in the 1990s after fleeing a crackdown on Islamists in his homeland. During this time he forged links with Osama bin Ladenâ€™s al Qaeda network.
Yuldeshev shot to prominence in March 2004, when Pakistani forces surrounded his base in South Waziristan, but he escaped while his fighters mounted a fierce defence.
The operation drew world attention because of feverish, but ultimately misplaced speculation that the army had cornered al Qaeda deputy leader Ayman al Zawahri.